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Rats have long been figures of monstrosity in the Gothic tradition. Early portrayals of rats in Gothic works focus on the vile, menacing potential of the animals, and they are closely associated with the demonic and tyrannical characters in the stories. However, Gothic fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—most obviously Bram Stoker’s “The Burial of the Rats” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”—marks a shift in the representation of rats from ominous, devilish agents to the modern threat of contagion by which, though they themselves do not carry any particular disease, they are a danger to both public and individual health and well-being. Stoker’s portrayal of rats in a filthy suburban district in Paris is related to the middle-class fear of being corrupted and overpowered by the poor. Lovecraft’s tale, on the other hand, explores the theme of contagion through atavism, as rats lead the narrator down to the sub-cellar of his estate, where he encounters the horror of ancestral crimes and becomes mentally degraded to a state of madness and cannibalism.
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